Olympic flame’s rocky road to Rio

Posted on August 4, 2016

A police officer pepper sprays demonstrators as a scuffle breaks out during a protest against the money spent on Rio's 2016 Summer Olympics on the route of the Olympic torch, in Niteroi, Brazil, Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2016. The three-month torch relay across Brazil will end at the opening ceremony on Aug. 5, in Rio de Janeiro's Maracana Stadium. (AP Photo/Leo Correa)©AP

A police officer pepper sprays demonstrators during a protest against the money spent on the Rio Olympics in Niteroi on Tuesday

On Friday the Olympic flame will finally arrive in Rio de Janeiro’s Maracanã stadium for the Games’ opening ceremony, marking the end of its epic and particularly tumultuous 12,000-mile odyssey across Brazil.

    As the torch made its way into the host city on Wednesday police even used stun grenades and tear gas to clear the way, removing protesters angry over the cost of hosting the Olympics.

    It is a journey that has revealed the unique challenges facing the first emerging market democracy to ever host the Games – a tale of heady idealism and crushing disappointment, economic boom and bust, innovation and chaos.

    In June, in a bizarre but strangely poetic moment, as the torch was paraded through Brazil’s northeastern city of Mossoró, an elderly lady careered through the crowds with a broom in hand and lit its bristles from the Olympic flame.

    “The torch! The torch!”, she screeched as she ran through groups of cheering spectators, wielding the burning broom in the air.

    A protester calls for improved public services as police guard the torch route in Sao Goncalo, Rio de Janeiro state

    Unwittingly, she had reenacted the scene from Greek mythology at the origin of the Olympic torch tradition itself – the moment when Prometheus steals fire from Zeus to share with mankind.

    However, for Dona Irene, as the former hospital janitor is known in her home town, it was just another of the outlandish stunts that has turned her into a local celebrity, explains her son and manager Kerginaldo. “The authorities didn’t make a fuss,” he says. “They could see she’s just an old lady.”

    Even the production of the Rio 2016 torch, or rather the 12,800 torches manufactured for the event, seemed symbolic.

    Like Rio’s bid in 2009 to host the Games, the torch’s design was wildly ambitious, perhaps overly so. Conceived by São Paulo-based studio Chelles & Hayashi, it expands 5.5cm vertically when passed between torchbearers – a reference to Brazilians’ welcoming nature.

    “We wanted to represent Brazil in a non-stereotypical way – the Olympic Committee itself said that we should not just show carnival, football, samba,” says the studio’s founder Gustavo Chelles.

    BRASILIA, BRAZIL - MAY 03: The Olympic athlete Diving Hugo Parisi running with the olympic torch, swimming in the pool water complex Claudio Coutinho. on May 3, 2016 in Brasilia, Brazil. The Olympic torch will pass through 329 cities from all states from the north to the south of Brazil, before arriving in Rio de Janeiro on August 5, for the lighting of the cauldron. (Photo by Igo Estrela/Getty Images)©Getty

    Diver Hugo Parisi holds the torch as it passes through the swimming complex in Rio

    Riding high on the global commodity boom and on track for its best growth in decades, the Brazil of 2009 wanted to do just that – show the world a different Brazil, worthy of respect.

    However, to the dismay of the Committee, Chelles’ design was so innovative that Brazil did not have the machinery or technical know-how to manufacture it. The production contract was handed over to Spanish engineering group Recam Làser, which built the torches in Barcelona.

    “It is probably the first and the last time that a torch is not made in the host country,” says Pere Barrios, Recam’s founder.

    After a whirlwind trip to Greece for the obligatory lighting ceremony in Olympia, followed by a United Nations ceremony in Geneva, the Olympic flame arrived by chartered plane in Brasília on May 3.

    What should have been a moment of great fanfare was overshadowed by Brazil’s political crisis – only days later President Dilma Rousseff was suspended from office, ostensibly for breaking budget laws but in reality for the dire state of the economy.

    woman lights a broom from the Brazilian olympic torch rodpocket/Youtube

    Dona Irene runs with a burning broom in the northeastern city of Mossoró becoming a local celebrity in the process

    In the seven years Brazil was given to prepare for the Games, the country went from emerging market darling to an economic basket case, mired in its worst recession on record. Economists say Ms Rousseff’s Workers’ Party (PT) failed to make the necessary reforms during the boom years to increase productivity, which would have allowed industry to flourish and perhaps even have allowed Brazil to manufacture its own torch.

    Under the watch of eight security guards, the Olympic flame then began its eventful journey across another 500 town and cities in Brazil. In the Amazonian city of Manaus, the ceremony featured a pet jaguar, which was later shot dead after trying to escape, sparking an international outcry.

    In São Paulo, top retailer Luiza Helena Trajano fell flat on her face while running with the torch. Two days later, a policeman on a motorbike ran over his colleague during the procession.

    In Angra dos Reis in Rio local media reported that a group even managed to briefly steal the torch and extinguish it in the midst of angry protests.

    Dancers perform ahead of the arrival of the torch relay in Rio’s North Zone on Wednesday

    If Brazil hosted the Olympics so the world would take it seriously, then it has already failed spectacularly, critics say, pointing to Rio’s other myriad problems such as pollution, crime and shoddy infrastructure.

    Others disagree. “Brazil was a serious country in 2009 and it still is,” says Paulo Sotero, director of the Brazil Institute at the Wilson Center, adding that the country has also made remarkable progress over the past seven years, particularly on fighting corruption. “For that, it deserves a gold medal.”

    After the antics of the torch relay by the likes of Dona Irene and Brazil’s own roller-coaster ride since 2009, Friday’s three-hour opening ceremony may come as an anticlimax. For Recam’s Mr Barrios, though, it will be the proudest moment of his career – the moment where an estimated 3bn people will be watching the torch that it took his company a year to develop. He will, however, be watching from home. “They didn’t invite me,” he says. “It’s OK, I think I would prefer to watch it on TV anyway.”

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